Friday, December 16, 2011

London and all that Jazz - Part One

From left to right on Angel Louise, Ed, Sue, Tony, Scott, Heather and Hilary
The Chunnel, the fast train from Paris to London is a delight, although as expensive as flying. It took just over two hours, as we left the train at the earlier stop right after leaving the tunnel in England. Our friends Tony and Hilary were waiting for us there. Our decision to spend our last week in London was made to visit them. We met them in Curacao and have spent many wonderful times with them on their boat "Miss Charlotte". They have since sold her and split their time now between homes in London and Tuscany.
Tony, Hilary, Scott and I all dressed up for the Opera
This jaunty ship was bottled up in Trafalgar Square
It was an amazing week. They are the best hosts imaginable and had a schedule of theaters and restaurants all set up in advance. Our first evening was fun and hectic. We drove to their home in Blackheath, one of the famous "Span" houses, dropped off our luggage and took the train into London. They headed off for their Italian lessons and we to meet up with other cruising friends, Ed and Sue on "Angel Louise".
Ed and Sue sailed across the Atlantic this summer stopping in Bermuda, the Azores and the Channel Islands before cruising the south coast of England to London. "Angel Louise" is tied up at St. Katherine Docks on the Thames. We were part of the honorary crew team that followed their adventures on the high seas.
A Van Gogh painting being recreated in front of the National
Gallery in plants.
We met them at the Cruising Association House for a slide presentation on cruising through the European canals and rivers from England to Istanbul and back. It was very interesting. Then the four of us joined up with Tony and Hilary for dinner at the Prospect of Whitby, a historic pub near the waterfront (57 Wapping Way, London E1W 354, 020 74811095). The current building dates from the 19th C but a tavern stood here from around 1520, formerly called the Devil's Tavern. Luckily we arrived just before the kitchen closed. The food was typical pub food cooked better than most. My "bangers and mash" were good as was Scott's "fish and chips".
Months in advance we booked tickets for the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery for the next morning. The opening had just been days before and was such a big event it was broadcast live to theaters around the country. He was not a prolific painter so most people have only seen one or two of his works. This was a historic opportunity to view most of them together, along with those of many of his students and contemporaries. His two Madonna of the Rocks were displayed opposite from each other - a rare opportunity to compare them. I found the Lady with the Ermine especially beautiful.
Afterwards we had lunch at the new cafe in the crypt of the St. Martin of the Fields church nearby. Fantastic. Whoever thought of this has struck gold. It was packed. It was cafeteria style but good interesting food at a somewhat reasonable price (it is the pound).
A walk through Covent Garden helped our digestion. Huge colorful Christmas decorations and street entertainers vied for our attention (and I thought we in the U.S. started the Christmas theme early) there. The outdoor markets and restaurants here don't close down in the winter.

We met Tony and Hilary again at the theater for a matinee performance of the Pittman Painters. This hit show portrays a group of actual miners that began art lessons in 1934, the Ashington Group. The Workers Educations Association (WEA) had had been running classes for the miners since 1927 (the first one was on Evolution). Robert Lyon, artist and teacher was their instructor and after realizing they had basically never seen any art, suggested they paint themselves to develop appreciation for art. It was a huge success with these miners and later with critics and the public. They exhibited their work many times and continued to paint as a group until 1983 when their meeting hut was finally demolished. The play was written by Lee Hall after the book by William Feaver, writer of Billy Elliot, and was wonderful.
The theme and original painting
Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery 
The Crypt restaurant at St. Martin in the Fields
Those are "head"stones in the floor.
Giant Christmas bulbs hang in Covent Garden
After the play we walked over to the London Eye along the Thames. Tony had got us tickets to this giant ferris wheel that looms over the city. Built for the Millennium it didn't actually open until March, 2000, but it is now enormously popular with tourists and residents. And we understand why - the views from the cars are amazing. I loved the glowing blue structure of the wheel itself. We ascended at twilight.
Typical English pubs with floral decorations
The superstructure of the London Eye with the Thames in
the background
Our neighbor pod reaches the top looking like a space ship
A few of the desserts at Ottolenghi restaurant
The handsome 20 foot high Octagonal Room at the peak
of Flamsteed House
We capped off the evening with dinner at a nearby Wagamamas, an interesting restaurant with long tables and excellent asian food. This is a chain of 105 restaurants all across Europe and the U.S. The first three of them in the U.S. opened in Boston in 2007 but until this time we'd never run into one.
It was a relaxing day following; laundry, bridge and a lovely walk down to Greenwich Park. That evening was dinner at Ottolenghi, a really delicious tapas style restaurant from Israeli born Chef Yotan Ottolenghi (1968). We went to their main location at 287 Upper St. Islington, London N1 2T2 (020 7288 1454). Our little plates of food were wonderful and left us enough room for the really gorgeous desserts piled up by the front door.
Then it was off to the Sadler Wells Theater for the Taiwan contemporary dance troup, Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan. The absolute control these dancers have over their bodies is amazing. The minimalist sets, lighting and costumes focused on the designs and patterns the dancers create. Somehow we got to talking to the couple seated in front of us and enjoyed a lot in commen. They lived nearby and invited us over afterwards to see their stunning penthouse apartment - very contemporary, two levels each with it's own terrace/roof garden. Another memorable evening altogether.
Harrison's H1
Our brief walk had left us with a desire to see much more of Blackheath and Greenwich. The next morning we went to the Royal Observatory museum, mainly to see the series of time pieces created by John Harrison. He made his first proposal for a marine chronometer in 1730 and finally received his last payment for achievement in 1773. He built five clocks during that time. The first four are in the Museum. The fifth was copy of H4 that King George tested himself and upon finding it accurate, demanded that Harrison receive the final payments due him. The payment was 20,000 pounds offered to anyone who could solve the problem of Longitude measurement.
Many ships and thousands of men had died due to errors in navigation due to inability to properly map where they were. Hipparchus in the 2nd C BC had already proved that accurate time knowledge could determine longitude but no one had every been able to build an accurate clock that could function at sea. Latitude had been resolved some time previously. You just needed to measure the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun's declination for the day. All we can say is, "Thank God for GPS". This is a fascinating subject and we had enjoyed the four part movie called "Longitude" with Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon last spring.
The Royal Observatory itself was founded by Charles II in 1675 and was the home of the Astronomer Royals. It is the location of the Prime Meridian and a "time ball" at the top drops daily at 1 PM to mark the exact time. This was once a time check for ships in the River heading out to sea. Outside there is a beautiful view down to the Maritime Museum and the Thames. We decided to come back for that the next day.
H4 - a giant pocket watch.
Astride the Prime Meridian at Greenwich
Several soccer games at a time on Blackheath

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